9th May. Wednesday of the 5th Week of Easter
Acts 15:1ff. A council of Christians meets to resolve a vital issue for the church.
John 15:1ff. The vine, the branches, the vinedresser and the pruning.
Finding our Roots
The Gospel calls us to reach into the roots and sources of our life and find our true identity in Jesus. For the Jewish people circumcision was the seal of the covenant, applied to the fleshly part linked with the transmission of life. Through this mark, the Jew was bonded to the great ancestor Abraham (Gen 15), and showed willingness to be known as a follower of the Mosic law, and if need be, to die out of loyalty to the covenant of Mount Sinai. Circumcision was much more than a traditional ceremony. It was a family and ancestral symbol of loyalty to one another and to Yahweh, the God of their ancestors, who united them as his very own people (Ex 19:5-6). Of course, it was sexist too, being limited to males; it took the great, liberating insight of Paul to see that true circumcision was a matter of the heart, and in that sense there would be neither male nor female, in Christ.
Jesus, we St Luke tells us, was circumcised on the eighth day after his birth (Luke 2:21). So was Paul (Phil 3:5). Both of them followed the Mosaic law from the heart. Jesus may have differed with some of the Jewish groups like the Pharisees about the interpretation of the law and about the binding force of some traditions, but he told his followers to obey the rules set down by the priests, even if their example was not worthy of imitation (Matt 23:3). True, spiritual circumcision reached into the roots and sources of life where bonds of love and loyalty were maintained between the people and with their God. And Jesus belongs at the heart of this relationship.
He tells us, “I am the vine, you are the branches.” We know from the gospel that he is the Way whose footsteps we are to follow. But the question became serious very early in the Church’s history, was circumcision to be required of all Christian male converts? And if female, were they required to undergo the ceremonial bath and to follow the strict dietary laws? This question has long been settled within Christianity. Paul’s theology triumphed, claiming that Jesus had brought the Old Law to its final fulfilment. Because of his birth, death and resurrection, it was no longer necessary first to be a Jew in order to become a Christian. Yet, the impact of this question upon early Christianity and its relation with Judaism has a continuing resonance for our lives and decisions today.
In life’s many interchanges, we are challenged by the Spirit of Jesus to reach courageous decisions concerning necessary changes, to open the Gospel to today’s world. Just as the early Church could reach beyond the actual practice of Jesus and no longer demand circumcision, is our Church not being asked today to leap forward from ideas and notions that now separate us from many thoughtful, ethically-aware people of today and to make brave decisions of acceptance, patience, social justice and concern for the oppressed, and the future of our planet? This was the ideal of Vatican II, for the Pilgrim People of God. If the Church’s leaders openly discuss such matters with the active and concerned laity, the resultant decisions can be trusted as divinely guided and will have the promise of Jesus behind them: “You may ask what you will, and it will be done for you.” When we live this deeply in God, there is an immediacy in God’s direction of our life.
First Reading: Acts 15:1-6
Then certain individuals came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” And after Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them, Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to discuss this question with the apostles and the elders. So they were sent on their way by the church, and as they passed through both Phoenicia and Samaria, they reported the conversion of the Gentiles, and brought great joy to all the believers.
When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and the elders, and they reported all that God had done with them. But some believers who belonged to the sect of the Pharisees stood up and said, “It is necessary for them to be circumcised and ordered to keep the law of Moses.” So the apostles and the elders met together to consider this matter.
Gospel: John 15:1-8
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine-grower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.”